Opening boxes to other lives

I’ve been many people in this life. I’ve been the happy child, the sulky teenager, the hard-working student, the teacher, the expert, the kind boss and the bitch boss, the easy employee and the difficult employee. I’ve been a glamour-puss and I’ve been a ‘land girl’.

My dad today called me a land girl. My nana chastised me for wearing dirty shorts when turning up for an appointment at the doctor’s (well, in my defence, I had six hours of gardening to do in three hours and it’s the fashion round these parts to be covered with mud and dirt, possibly in overalls and my Nana thinks most French people dress like Kylie Minogue, when really they dress like Mrs Overall) and it’s true to say I have gone back to the land.

But I opened some of the last boxes brought to me by my dad and my brother, and it was like finding old butterfly wings having gone back to being a caterpillar. They were filled with beautiful skirts. I love beautiful skirts. I have about forty, all colours of the rainbow, usually in similar cuts – fitted over the hips, flared to knee-length. Mustard and browns, pinks and blues, greens and pinks, purples and whites, blues, turquoises, whites, blacks, chiffon, cotton, broderie Anglaise, lace. I had matching twinsets or cute sweaters, cardigans or Ralph Lauren knits to match every single one of them – and probably matching shoes. They are all gorgeous. Opening that box was like opening a box of forgotten treasures, looking at clothes that once meant so much to me – much more pleasure than my very functional shorts and t-shirt I now wander around in. These were clothes that I enjoyed, that brought me pleasure. And clothes I don’t have much time for in my life now.

But I’m not sure this is a bad thing even if it is a little sad to have so many beautiful skirts. I used to patrol the Trafford Centre every Friday after work as a way to release all the week’s tension. Clothes, shoes, make-up, music – I didn’t have many expensive things, but I still lived well. I had more clothes than I needed, just so that I had something lovely to wear, something that matched my mood. I spoilt myself, and I spoilt the people around me too. I bought my brother a gorgeous leather jacket that he still wears, and some beautiful t-shirts.

But it took a shock to make me realise that Buddha was right: you can’t hold on to material possessions and expect them to bring you happiness. The things you cling to will bring you misery when you lose them. I worked so hard – and money was never my primary motive – but clothes didn’t bring me peace of mind or make work life easy. One of my favourite stop-by blogs, Zen Habits, ran a post this week about consumerism. And it reminded me of my real values – the ones that I hold true. Can you hold opposite values? Is it possible to value beautiful skirts AND eschew consumerism? Hmmmm. Maybe it’s a case of moderation! Eschew consumerism unless there’s a really, really beautiful skirt that you will get lots of pleasure from!

And yes, I was living to support the companies who profited from my purchases. I was living to support the faux-marble, faux-gold rents at The Trafford Centre. I was living to look good – and I still hold by the fact that if you like how you look, you are much happier inside. I know a bit of make-up and a lovely dress can make me feel more confident, happier, more in tune.

Zen Habits said something that really resonated with me:

“Either way, we find our path as consumers. And everything is solved by consumption — when we’re stressed, we shop. When we want to be entertained, we buy the entertainment. We buy our food in packages, we fix our failing health by buying exercise clothes and equipment. We fix our debt by buying personal finance books and taking out a second mortgage.”

I was that girl. I was the girl buying £5.00 ‘balanced’ organic pre-prepared meals, or organic tofu and noodles. I was the girl with the personal trainer and the £50.00 gym membership, the wardrobe full of gym clothes, £70.00 trainers (yes, cheap, I know!) I was the girl who riches bought physical health, looks and yet I had all this taken away from me – well, I chose under extreme pressure to walk away from it. Maybe it was a fit of pique at being suspected of dishonesty. Maybe I was piqued about not being supported. Anyway, it was my third job where I’d felt pressured to walk away, and suddenly, the money didn’t seem so important.

I began cutting things I subscribed to – first magazines went. I cut my shopping bill from £60.00 a week to £20.00. I got rid of the gym membership and the expensive haircuts. I cut out all the pedicures and treatments. I cancelled my sky subscription and my magazines. Now, I’m down to three bills: water, electric and phone/internet. I do all our shopping for 80.00€ a week, including dogs and cats. I haven’t got a pot to piss in as the proverb states. No ipod, no blackberry, no iphone, no kindle, no ipad. A crappy old laptop with cat sick on the keys and a beaten up plug-in keyboard. I can’t remember the last time I bought any clothes from a shop, let alone a shop that didn’t have an offer on. I can’t afford to be swayed by advertising.

And my life is simpler for it.

My joys now come from ‘free'(ish!) things: painting, photography, writing, reading, drawing. We don’t have television – French or English – though we watch a lot of movies and series on DVD. Now I never get any pre-prepared meals because I can’t afford the ones that are good quality. I don’t eat take-away or in restaurants because I can’t afford to. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t eat well. I’ve picked half a kilo of radishes today; we’ve had home-grown lettuce for the last week. We don’t drink ‘brand’ because we can’t afford to (although Jake is still brand-obsessed – he still hasn’t got his head around Dark Dog being 2.71€ for a 200 ml can and being able to buy 12 litres of non-brand coke for 2.35€ ) I don’t buy breaded chicken breasts or pre-prepared pizzas because they cost three times as much and they’re about three times less tasty.

One thing Zen Habits say is ‘watch fewer ads’ – easy for me. No tv. No ads. They say ‘avoid shopping malls’ – and that’s a done deal because I covet all those pretty skirts just like I used to. They say ‘when you really need something, consider borrowing it or buying it used’. I bought a fantastic bookshelf for 10€. It wasn’t ‘vintage’, but it’s cute. I’m getting to like items with history rather than wanting to buy things brand-new. Ebay isn’t so good here in France, but there are plenty of brocantes and bric-a-bracs, and Le Bon Coin. My sister brought me four ‘new’ tops – and I’m going to enjoy every single one of them, ‘used’ though they may be.

Am I ‘happier’? I don’t think it’s related to money, necessarily. I was rich, once – enough to buy a Dior handbag in a Tokyo department store. But that wasn’t a very happy time. Money gives me headaches now – it never used to – but having time to enjoy life is worth it. Having time to write is worth it. Having to spend 4 hours in the garden today without really touching the weeds – worth it. Meals that cost less than 5€ for 3 people – worth it.

Yes, I’d like to have a little more. That’d be good. But maybe I’ve learned my lesson again about not being materialistic! Zen has nothing to do with it. Necessity has everything to do with it.

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